Throughout the Trayvon Martin trial – and to be sure it was Travyon Martin who was put on trial for his own death, not George Zimmerman – many Caucasian supporters of Zimmerman used the term “thug” casually to describe the 17 year old honor student, Trayvon Martin.
Why was Martin a “thug”? Because he had a picture of a gun and marijuana smoke on his Facebook page. Of course, they never knew that in the beginning, but once they found out this convenient bit of information, they quickly absorbed it into the narrative of Zimmerman’s stalking of the youth.
Never mind that millions of Caucasian teens have pictures of guns on their Facebook page, and they are just considered “country” or part of “gun culture.” Never mind the fact that the vast majority of Caucasian teens have smoked marijuana. When it is a 17 year old honor student, he is a “thug,” even when he is armed only with a cell phone, Skittles, ice tea and the color of his skin…
The late, great, social activist and commentator Tupac Shakur explained what “thug” meant to him, understanding that this term was used in a very racial context in the United States. Take a listen to his poignant words at the Indiana Black Expo, in 1993:
When I say ‘Thug Life,’ I mean that shit
Cause these white folks see us as thugs
I don’t care what y’all think
I don’t care if you think you a lawyer, if you a man, if you an ‘African-American’
If you whatever the f*ck you think you are
We thugs and n*gg@s to these motherf*ckers…
Tupac was right. When it comes to many “white folks” and certainly the vast majority of Zimmerman’s defenders, any African American youth who represents cultural norms of dress, music, speech, or anything else that makes them uneasy, is a “thug.” When Trayvon Martin is seen as a “thug” for wearing a hoodie, and walking home to watch a game with his family, then it is clear that “thug” needs racially unpacked.
To be clear, the term “thug” is racial in origins. That is to say that its use by Europeans very quickly became absorbed as racial – racist – slang.
The word tuggee (ठग्गी) comes from Hindi thag ‘thief’, from Sanskrit sthaga ‘scoundrel’, from sthagati ‘to conceal’. It was an Indian network of secret fraternities, cult-like in many ways, who were engaged in robbing and killing British colonialist. To the British, any brown-skinned face that they saw on the road, or in their imagination, was a “thug” coming to get them, while they innocently made their way through the lands they exploited and colonized.
This is the origin of the term “thug”, as many Indian words passed into common English during British Imperial rule of India. British colonists, however, did not refer to other European imperialists as “thugs,” it was specifically a term in British parlance for the dark skinned “natives” that they feared.
Today, the term is applied to any African American who a Caucasian is afraid might rob them, rape them, kill them, or – in the case of George Zimmerman, burglarize houses in the neighborhood his future step-mother lived in.
To racists in America today, a Trayvon Martin with Skittles, ice tea and a cell phone is a “thug”; Amadou Diallo with keys in his hand is a “thug,” and if you are African American, the message is clear, your children are “thugs”. America sent a message with the Zimmerman acquittal. That message is that if you are suspected of “thuggery” you are guilty until proven innocent. Your very appearance, your Facebook images, your toke of marijuana makes you guilty of a capital offense. It seems that Tupac had it right all along.
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